Study War Much More

By Milan Vego

Another problem is that during the 1990s, the Navy uncritically accepted the idea that conducting war is not much different from carrying out business. One of the side effects of this is the service’s emphasis on management rather than true leadership. Military effectiveness is being sacrificed on the altar of efficiency. The Navy’s readiness and ability to fight and win at sea depends on the quality and skills of its top commanders and their staffs—yet it does not send many promising officers to attend the resident program at Newport, Rhode Island’s, Naval War College.

Today’s Navy officer corps’ knowledge and understanding of naval theory and military history is far from adequate. This is the result of many years of ignoring the importance of such an education for future flag officers and staffers. Administrative and social issues are taking up inordinate time and effort relative to their importance.

Flawed Doctrine for an Uncertain Future

A new challenger to U.S. interests and influence in the Asia-Pacific region, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is steadily increasing its economic, political, and military power. It is not farfetched to envisage the possibility that the United States could be drawn into a major war with the PRC over Taiwan or disputed islands in the South China Sea. The United States could also be involved in a war on the Korean Peninsula, the Persian Gulf, or even the Baltic Sea if Russia threatens the Baltic States. Clearly, none of these confrontations is inevitable. But each is possible.

Many experts today believe the PRC will not be an issue because of its commercial and financial interconnectedness with the United States. But nations often go to war because of mutual misperceptions about one another’s true intentions. These misunderstandings can arise through repeated public statements from which it would be difficult to back down without losing face. The PRC’s widely known proprietary claims about contested islands in the South and East China Seas is one example. A major war can also be caused by irrational decisions reached by the highest political leaders. In short, no one can plausibly assert that the United States could never be involved in future major flashpoints.

In March 2012, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert said the Navy “must be ready to fight and win today, while building ability to win tomorrow. This is our primary mission, and all our efforts from the ‘wardroom to the boardroom’ must be grounded in this fundamental responsibility.” 1 However, this focus is not adequately reflected in current documents on strategy and doctrine. The Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CSF21) gives relatively short shrift to warfighting; most of the attention is given to operations short of high-intensity conventional war. 2

Falling far short of being a warfighting strategy, CSF21 clearly stresses the Navy’s role in peacetime engagement with global maritime partnerships to promote rule of law and prevent or contain local disruptions. Two new core capabilities are added: maritime security and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief. These apparently are placed at the same level as traditional core capabilities. 3 Relatively more attention is given to warfighting in the Naval Operations Concept of 2010 , the main guidance for implementing the maritime strategy. Two chapters—”Sea Control” and “Power Projection”—deal directly with warfighting, in 21 of the document’s total 100 pages. 4 Even so, it only broadly (and erroneously) refers to maritime trade warfare as part of sea control, instead of discussing its role—which it fills throughout the entire duration of a war at sea—of weakening the enemy’s or protecting one’s own military-economic potential. Nor are antisubmarine warfare and mine warfare directly included as integral aspects of the struggle for control of the subsurface. Likewise, the revised NDP-1 Naval Warfare (March 2010) doctrinal document did not explain in detail either of these fundamental areas.

Overcentralized Command and Control

As in other services, the Navy’s command-and-control processes tend to be unnecessarily centralized. This is especially the case at the operational-tactical and operational levels of command. The main reason for this unhealthy state of affairs is advances in information technology. Senior commanders today can observe events thousands of miles from their headquarters in real or near-real time. They can send messages almost instantaneously to subordinates, regardless where they are. This promotes a false impression that remote HQ can perceive the situation better than tactical commanders on the scene.

Consequently, not only must tactical commanders report to operational commanders, but the latter often issue orders to the tactical level. Intermediate commanders are bypassed and relegated essentially to the status of information administrators, while more senior leaders immerse themselves in details.

The networking of U.S. naval forces supposedly promises decentralized command and control, hence greater freedom to act for subordinates. But the result is just the opposite, as room steadily narrows for subordinate commanders to make decisions in accordance with the higher commander’s intent. Experience shows that despite all the advances in information technology, superiors cannot know and understand the situation better than tactical commanders on the scene of action. They also cannot take advantage of sudden changes in the situation.

In contrast to the current practices, leading Navy admirals in World War II were willing to delegate authority and thereby give sufficient freedom of action to those reporting to them. In January 1941, Admiral Ernest J. King, then the newly appointed commander-in-chief of the Atlantic Fleet, became extremely concerned about the tendency of commanders to specify not only what was to be done but how. He cautioned that the Navy had to change if it was to prevail in the coming war. 5

One month after taking command, King issued an “Exercise of Command: Excess of Detail in Orders and Instructions.” He wrote that commanders were assumed to be competent until proven otherwise. They should be trained by guidance and supervision to think, exercise foresight, decide, and act for themselves. They should not be nursed, and those in charge of them should train themselves to be satisfied with acceptable solutions, even if not “staff solutions” or those that they preferred. On 22 April 1941, King issued another “Exercise of Command: Correct Use of Initiative,” aimed to reinforce the previous order. He would dress down any commander for the sin of oversupervising subordinates with complex and overly detailed directives. 6

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, as the theater-strategic and theater fleet commander, and Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, Fifth Fleet commander, realized that those reporting to them at the scene of action were best suited for making tactical decisions. Nimitz was said to leave local commanders alone, because looking over their shoulders would only inhibit them. As long as they had the responsibility, they had to have the freedom to do what they thought best.

At the same time, both admirals occasionally made recommendations via radio messages to subordinate commanders if it appeared they were missing favorable opportunities. Subordinates were told what needed to be done, given the necessary resources, provided as much information on the enemy as possible, and then left alone to accomplish the mission. 7 Rear Admiral Charles J. Moore, Spruance’s wartime chief of staff, said Spruance normally refrained from interfering in commanders’ performance of their tasks. If changes in the situation required adjustments or new orders, he would, time permitting and after consulting with a subordinate, issue a new directive. If someone appeared to be departing from his assigned mission, only then would Spruance interfere, with the greatest reluctance, and only if the probable consequences of failure were serious. 8

The Naval War College Can Help

Life being short, including for officers, there are too few opportunities to gain knowledge and understanding of war in combat. Hence, the main sources of education in warfighting for future flag officers and staff officers are resident programs at the service colleges and frequent participation in war games.

Yet the Navy still does not truly appreciate how important the Naval War College is for the education of future warfighters in policy/strategy and joint operational warfare and operational warfare at sea. Between World Wars I and II, without the college’s resident program, which focused on warfighting, the U.S. Navy would not have been successful against Japan in 1941–45. Today, some young officers are even discouraged from attending the program. Despite all the value of the off-campus and Web-based programs, the resident program provides the most thorough professional education. This is where future leaders from all services and their international peers should be discussing and debating various aspects of warfare, while learning to understand one another’s service culture and way of warfare. Another great advantage is that students develop personal relationships with their counterparts in other services and future leaders of other navies.

Spruance highly praised his six years as a student of the senior course and two tours on the staff (including one as chairman of the Operations Department). In 1965 he wrote to Vice Admiral Charles L. Nelson, president of the Naval War College:

I consider that what I learned during these years was of utmost value to me in the opportunity it gave me to broaden my knowledge of international affairs and of naval history and strategy. The Naval Academy course in my time as a midshipman 1903 to 1906—was by no means a liberal education. The courses at the Naval War College in later years, with the fine lectures that we had and the problems in strategy that were given to the student officers to solve, gave us a liberal education. This to me was of the utmost value throughout the years of World War II in the Pacific, and later after retirement during my three years as Ambassador in the Philippines from 1952 to 1955. 9

The Navy needs to send its most promising officers as instructors to the Naval War College. In the interwar years, many officers had highly successful careers and reached flag rank after tours of duty as instructors there. For example, in 1937–38 the head of the Department of Operations was Captain Spruance. All the instructors were captains, and most—specifically R. K. Turner, C. H. Wright, F. P. Thomas, Dewitt Peck, Robert F. Emmet, Lynde D. McCormick, and R. S. Wentworth—attained flag rank. Apparently, in those years the Navy sent its best officers to the Naval War College to teach.

War gaming is another important way to educate and train, yet very few U.S. naval officers take part in such games. They are especially critical in these times of smaller forces and shrinking resources and come closer than any other form of intellectual exercise to illustrating the dynamics of warfare, about which they make players think. 10 But U.S. naval leaders who actually fought in the Pacific Theater in World War II were also those who played war games in the interwar years. Admiral Nimitz later commented:

War with Japan had been re-enacted in the game rooms at the Naval War College by so many people and in so many different ways, that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise . . . absolutely nothing except that kamikaze tactics toward the end of the war; we had not visualized these. 11

War games can be very effective in building a consensus on the importance of key ideas in the minds of participants. 12 They are an important means of preparing spiritually for war, and of shaping unified tactical and strategic views. 13 Those conducted at the Naval War College between World Wars I and II reshaped how the U.S. Navy came to think about its role in a possible war against Japan. The service came to abandon its once firmly held notion that war at sea culminates in decisive battle such as that of Jutland, and that naval strategy consists of maneuvering the Fleet to bring to the enemy to that decisive battle.

The games convinced Navy leaders that it was not true that a superior peacetime naval order of battle was equivalent to available force in war, that a peacetime treaty status quo would persist indefinitely, or that only traditional naval weapons deployed according to longstanding hierarchies of importance would be necessary to defeat the enemy. The assumption was also proven wrong that war across the oceanic theater could be conducted quickly, and that the enemy’s advantage in strategic geography was marginal to strategic planning as well as to the conduct of naval operations. Finally, the games demonstrated the falsity of views that a war with Japan would be limited in time, number of participants, and objectives. 14

In sum, the Navy should shift its current focus from peacetime toward a strategy aimed at winning a high-intensity conventional war against a strong opponent at sea. The maritime strategy and operational doctrine should emphasize the exigency of warfighting, while recognizing that the United States might become involved in a major war. Otherwise, the service will not be mentally ready for fighting and winning such a conflict. The Navy also should realize that German-style mission command is a prerequisite for outthinking and outfighting a strong enemy at sea. The fatal flaws of overcentralized command and control are not obvious in a peacetime environment, but only in high-intensity combat. By then it is too late to shift to mission command. Professional education and training should be heavily biased in favor of warfighting. Promising candidates should be promoted and rewarded, as the Navy scrutinizes service records far more closely and looks for ways to maximize the potential of its officers.

1. Statement of ADM Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, before the Congress on FY 2013 Department of Navy Posture, March 2012, 6.

2. Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, October 2007), 1.

3. Jan Van Tol, “When Matching the Strategic Objective of Preventing War to Resources, Can the U.S. Navy Prevent War in the 21st century, and If So, How?” Information Dissemination blog, 26 June 2012, 2, .

4. Naval Operating Concept. Implementing the Maritime Strategy (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 2010), 51–80.

5. Thomas E. Buell, Master of Sea Power: A Biography of Admiral Ernest J. King (Boston/Toronto: Little, Brown, 1980), appendix 1, 521–23; appendix 2, 524–25; Gerard D. Roncolato’s letter to the editor re: “Taking Maneuver Warfare to Sea,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , March 1996, 22.

6. Thomas B. Buell, The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987), 132, 136.

7. Ibid., 173, 136.

8. Interview with ADM C. J. Moore, USN, by John T. Mason Jr., 28 November 1966, Folder 1: Misc., Box 2, Ms Coll 12, Spruance, Raymond A. Papers, 1942–1966, Series II, Speeches, 1943–1960, Series III Miscellany, Msc Ac. 70-7, Naval War College Archives, Newport, RI, 6.

9. Spruance’s letter to VADM Charles L. Nelson, USN, 3 November 1965, Folder 7: Correspondence. Box 1, Ms Coll 12, Spruance, Raymond A. Papers, 1942-1966, Series I, Correspondence, 1906-1968, Msc Ac. 70-7, Naval War College Archives, Newport, RI, 1.

10. Peter P. Perla and Raymond T. Barrett, An Introduction to Wargaming and Its Uses (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, October 1985), 11.

11. Daryl S. McCarty, War Games and Logistics (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air War College, Air University, April 1988 Pre-Cat), 9.

12. Perla and Barrett, An Introduction to Wargaming , 11–12.

13. Marinekriegsakademie (Naval Academy), Anleitung fuer Seekriegsspiele (Berlin: Reichswehrministerium-Marineleitung, 1928), 7.

14. Peter P. Perla, The Art of Wargaming: A Guide for Professionals and Hobbyists (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990), 73–74.

Dr. Vego is a professor of operations at the Naval War College. Before coming to the United States in 1976, he served as commanding officer of torpedo boats and gunboats in the former Yugoslav Navy and as 2nd officer (Deck) in the former West German merchant marine. He is the author of The Battle for Leyte, 1944 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2006), Naval Strategy and Operations in Narrow Seas (London: Frank Cass Publishers, 1999 and 2nd ed., 2003), and many articles on littoral warfare.


Conferences and Events

Defense Forum Washington 2015

Mon, 2015-12-07

Defense Forum Washington will take place 7 December 2015 at the Newseum - Knight Conference Center in Washington, DC.  

Maritime Security Dialogue

View All

From the Press

"Goldrick Seminar: 2015"

Thu, 2015-12-03

Guest Speakers & Book Signing

Mon, 2015-12-07

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership