People Create High Velocity Outcomes

By Commander Joel Holwitt, U.S. Navy

The concept of high-velocity outcomes and military acquisitions is not new. Defense and industrial professionals have written numerous articles and books prescribing various solutions, trying either to find efficiencies in existing processes or to entirely revise the system with something new.

But today’s acquisition processes are the products of history. They were codified by the Department of Defense in the late 1950s and the early 1960s in an attempt to systematize the programs that facilitated two of the military’s greatest successes of the postwar era: the swift development of intercontinental ballistic and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (ICBMs and SLBMs). From that time forward, military acquisition has emphasized a defined and bureaucratic process. 1

Yet looking at the history of the two missile programs reveals that they succeeded because of the people involved. Significant early contributions came from some of the brightest civilian scientists in the nation. Uniformed scientists and engineers did much of the design and development. And leaders selected talent, inspired dedication, and shared a common vision. In short, the success of these programs was not so much about process as about the people who created it.

Civilian Scientists Set the Course

In March 1953, John von Neumann and Edward Teller briefed senior leaders in the U.S. Air Force about the decreasing size of thermonuclear warheads. A veteran of the Manhattan Project and a pioneer of game theory and electronic computers, von Neumann enjoyed tremendous credibility with the military. After a subsequent discussion with then-Colonel Bernard “Bennie” Schriever and Trevor Gardner, special assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force for Research and Development, von Neumann chaired the Air Force’s Strategic Missiles Evaluation Committee—often referred to as the “Tea Pot Committee.” Its members included Clark Millikan, director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory; Jerome Wiesner, future science adviser to President John F. Kennedy; and George Kistiakowsky, future science adviser to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The committee concluded that thermonuclear warheads soon would be small enough and powerful enough to be mounted on ICBMs and carried deep into an adversary’s territory. 2


The Polaris team faced challenges designing a reliable missile system that operated underwater and launched from a moving frame of reference.

In March 1954, President Eisenhower tasked the Presidential Science Advisory Council (PSAC) with examining the possibility of a surprise nuclear attack and what the United States could do to prevent it. James Killian, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), chaired the PSAC subcommittee that investigated this scenario and examined the technological capabilities in which the United States consequently should invest. 3 In February 1955, the Killian Committee recommended that “the National Security Council formally recognize the present Air Force program for the development of an [ICBM] as a nationally supported effort of highest priority. . . . A ballistic missile (with about 1,500 nautical mile range and megaton warhead) for strategic bombardment [should be developed]; both land-basing and ship-basing should be considered.” 4

Civilian scientists built off the Killian Committee’s report to set the Navy’s course for the SLBM. In 1956, the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Undersea Warfare held a summer study at Nobska Point, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, led by Pennsylvania State University President Eric Walker and Columbus O’Donnell Iselin, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Captain I. J. Galantin, who was present, wrote: “Looking at the trend of technology that already produced the atomic bomb and [the USS] Nautilus [SSN-571], the study . . . made a very good case that submarines could provide the cheapest, most effective means of naval strategic nuclear weapons delivery.” The ubiquitous Edward Teller made clear how quickly warhead technology was evolving: “Why are you designing a 1965 weapon system with 1958 warhead technology?” Later, as the project gathered steam, the Polaris Steering Task Group continued to set performance goals. Among other notables, the group included Charles Stark Draper, the father of inertial navigation, and Harold Brown, director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and future Secretary of Defense. 5

The Uniformed Engineers of Victory

Though civilian scientists established the ICBM and SLBM programs, it was uniformed scientists and engineers who saw the programs to fruition.

In the case of the ICBM, Bennie Schriever—now a brigadier general on his way to four stars—relied on a group of officers known in the Air Force as “Bennie’s Colonels.” Neil Sheehan wrote: “They were bold and clever men of initiative, who believed fervently in what ‘the Boss’ was seeking to achieve, and were entrusted with tasks Schriever would not have delegated to anyone else.” 6

Bennie’s Colonels was an eclectic and unique group of officers. Colonel Ed Hall, an irascible genius, developed advances in rocket fuel, technology, and design that led to the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman ICBMs, as well as the Thor intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM). Colonel Charles Mathison built the launch pads at Cape Canaveral, Florida, that tested numerous missiles and rockets. Mathison went on to become Schriever’s point man for launching prototype spy satellites. Colonel Richard Jacobson started as Schriever’s director of testing, but he ended up taking over the Thor IRBM after a series of failures threatened both Thor and the concurrently developed Atlas. Jacobson introduced strict quality control and maintenance practices, leading to the success of both missiles. Colonel Samuel Phillips took charge of the Minuteman to take it operational. 7

The Polaris team faced challenges just as daunting, if not more so, as those overcome by Bennie’s Colonels: designing a reliable missile system that operated underwater and launched from a moving frame of reference. Consequently, Rear Admiral William “Red” Raborn sought out the Navy’s top talent. The undoubted best pick was his technical director, Captain Levering Smith. A former line officer who had served in surface ships throughout World War II, Smith had given up orders to command a destroyer to become an ordnance engineering duty only (EDO) officer. When he reported to Raborn, he was the Navy’s foremost expert on rockets. 8 Now-Admiral Galantin praised Smith as “the indispensable man. His personal absolute integrity and honesty were the foundation of his scientific and engineering excellence.” 9 Raborn was more succinct: “He is the finest scientist in uniform.” 10

That the talented people who carried these missile programs to success wore uniforms was not an accident but the product of deliberate personnel policy. The services had invested in the postgraduate educations of most of these officers. Hall earned his master’s degree in aeronautical engineering at Caltech. Jacobson earned a master’s at the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory under Draper’s guidance. Phillips earned his master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan. Smith studied ordnance at the Naval Postgraduate School. Even those without graduate degrees obtained more-advanced education than they might otherwise have had. Mathison, for example, had dropped out of the U.S. Naval Academy to become an Air Force pilot, but following World War II, he earned a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Maryland. 11 Of note, all these men attended graduate school or completed college, most within the first ten years of their careers and usually at or before the O-4 grade (major or lieutenant commander). In addition to being scientifically talented, they had credibility as operators.

The Air Force and the Navy capitalized on the men’s education by assigning them to duties that provided research and engineering experience. Hall applied his at the Air Development Center, where he worked with the Rocketdyne division of North American Aviation to build and test rocket engines. Jacobson worked on guided missiles and nuclear warheads. Smith served seven consecutive years at China Lake and the White Sands testing grounds developing his expertise with rocketry. 12

All about Leadership

Raborn and Schriever were more than program managers; both had an uncanny ability to pick the right people to accomplish impossible tasks. Each inspired exceptional dedication and innovation from their military and civilian workers. They arguably rank alongside such captains of military history as George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Chester W. Nimitz.

Neil Sheehan writes that Schriever’s leadership philosophy could be boiled down to: “Study a task, identify the right man to solve the problem . . . then win the man’s loyalty and back him up while he does the job.” 13 Reflecting on his experience under Raborn, Levering Smith expressed an almost identical philosophy: “The various complexities and hindrances can only be overcome by attracting first-rate technical personnel . . . [who must be] intellectually honest, have undivided loyalty, and be willing for others to carry out the resulting development without detailed direction.” 14

Both Schriever and Raborn enjoyed an almost unrestricted ability to select personnel from within their services. One Air Force major encountered General Schriever at the Air Research and Development Command in Baltimore, Maryland. The major, on travel from his command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, passed Schriever in a stairwell, not knowing who the brigadier general was. Schriever stopped the major, verified his name, and then ordered, without any explanation, “Go back to Wright Field and report to me in California.” The flabbergasted major had to ask a friend to tell him the name of the general who had just reassigned him. By the time the major returned to Ohio, he had official orders to Schriever’s organization. 15

Once selected, subordinates had to execute the vision without micromanagement. Sometimes this meant remaining patient in the face of failure. When the first Thor IRBMs malfunctioned, Schriever calmly said, “I expect things like this to happen.” Schriever also tolerated what some viewed as insubordination, saying: “Talented people can be difficult. You have to let them do things their way.” But at the same time, both leaders knew when to step in and make a significant personnel change. Schriever, for instance, allowed the brilliant but abrasive Ed Hall to design and commence the initial work on the Minuteman ICBM, before turning the missile’s rapid development over to Samuel Phillips. 16

Raborn and Schriever each demonstrated an ability to share a vision with their subordinates and outsiders. Raborn, in particular, instilled esprit de corps in his military subordinates and civilian contractors, providing Polaris pennants for them to fly above participating laboratories and factories. After Raborn delivered an uplifting address to a factory that had fallen behind, its workers drew up a pledge to recommit themselves to the work of Polaris. Raborn did not limit himself to those working on the project; he explained its importance to the families of workers and servicemen, succeeding so brilliantly that one senior officer quipped, “Polaris couldn’t fail because the wives wouldn’t let it.” 1 7

Both leaders used processes that worked for them. In Schriever’s case, he held a monthly day-long briefing to review all aspects of his program and insisted on being told about problems. He said: “I don’t like to be surprised. Give me the bad news. I can take it. I will not fire you for giving me the bad news. I will fire you if you don’t give me the bad news.” 18

Historians have debated whether or not Raborn relied on a computerized process known as the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) that identified critical-path items and a timeline for completion; in either case, Raborn undoubtedly developed a method for keeping up with the critical path, for he quickly corrected issues before they grew into problems. 19

Raborn, Schriever, and their dedicated teams succeeded because they enjoyed proper oversight and support from the highest echelons of their services. Special Assistant Gardner handpicked Schriever to take charge of the Air Force’s ICBM program, assuring him that he would insulate Schriever from the interference of bureaucrats in the Pentagon. Gardner was true to his word; after Schriever identified dozens of layers of management hindering the project, Gardner worked with the Air Force and Defense secretaries to eliminate the red tape and speed up things. As a result, Schriever obtained the authority to requisition personnel and resources to a remarkable extent. 20

In Raborn’s case, his service chief, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Arleigh Burke, provided a model of mission command in a memorandum that became known as “Red Raborn’s hunting license.” The memorandum provided Raborn the CNO’s authority with regard to personnel assignment, resource allocation, and the weightiest decisions in the program. Burke backed up the memorandum with a one-on-one meeting, during which he made clear to Raborn that there was a limit to his assignment: “If you reach the stage where you cannot do this thing, we will kill the project.” 

Armed with Burke’s expectations, special trust, and confidence, Raborn set out to accomplish the mission. Burke himself was content to let Raborn run the program with virtually no interference. His most important contribution for the next five years was determining which programs to cut to fund the growing cost of Polaris. 21

People Not Process

John von Neumann’s briefing in March 1953 established the concept for the ICBM program. Five and a half years later, in August 1958, the Thor IRBM deployed to Great Britain. Six and a half years later, in September 1959, the Air Force manned the first Atlas battery. And less than ten years after Neumann’s testimony, in October 1962, the Minuteman ICBM entered service. The Navy did just as well, opening the Special Projects Office in December 1955 and successfully launching two Polaris missiles from the USS George Washington (SSBN-598) in July 1960. 22

Little wonder then that the Department of Defense sought to codify the lessons of these programs. But the programs did not succeed because of a process. As Michael Isenberg noted: “Good people make management—not the reverse. In Special Projects, people, more than anything else, were the method.” 23 Unfortunately, because military acquisition in the years since has focused on process—to the near exclusion of people—it would be almost impossible to replicate the timely success of these programs today.

Military-scientific collaboration has atrophied since the early 1960s. This partly has resulted from the World War II generation of scientists, accustomed to such partnerships, passing from the scene. Part also resulted from the disillusionment of civilian academics with the U.S. government that began during the Vietnam War. In more recent times, the collaboration of anthropologists with the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan drew significant criticism, further discouraging participation by scientists. 24 It would be difficult to identify any present-day von Neumanns or Drapers, although some civilian research institutions have maintained a strong relationship with the military.

The Navy and Air Force likewise continue to have uniformed scientists and engineering specialists, but none has taken on the same sorts of challenges as Smith, Hall, or Jacobson. Indeed, many programs now are run by “acquisition professionals,” who may have significant management experience, but not always much experience with research and development. While the services still send promising young line officers to graduate education, in the case of the Navy, only about half use the knowledge or credentials earned. 2 5

Relearn the Importance of People

But just because Polaris or Atlas could not be replicated today does not mean it would be impossible to do so tomorrow, provided the Department of Defense starts taking the right steps now. During World War II, General of the Army Henry “Hap” Arnold, the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army Air Forces, cultivated a strong relationship with Theodore von Kármán, the first recipient of the U.S. National Medal of Science, writing: “I believe the security of the United States of America will continue to rest in part in developments instituted by our educational and professional scientists.” 2 6 At Arnold’s request, von Kármán recruited a team of brilliant scientists who wrote a multivolume report released in 1945 called “Toward New Horizons” that laid the groundwork for the Air Force’s expansion into the jet age, missiles, and space. 2 7 Just like Arnold with von Kármán, today’s senior leaders should establish close relationships with the nation’s top scientific minds. This could include greater involvement with the National Science Foundation and more distinguished scientific advisory boards.

The services should continue to send interested and talented officers to the best technical graduate schools. This should not be interpreted as a call to send military officers only to science and engineering programs—a well-balanced military benefits from strategic thinkers with a humanities background as well. At the same time, uniformed scientists like Smith or Hall cannot exist unless they are well educated. Once educated, these officers must gain experience in their fields.

Finally, service chiefs need to identify today’s equivalents to the ICBM or SLBM programs. The chiefs need to be involved intimately in the selection of program managers, provide clear guidance and empowerment, and obtain the necessary funding to accomplish the tasks. And just like Admiral Burke, they must possess the courage to kill projects that do not perform.

Tomorrow’s Red Raborn and Bennie Schriever already are on active duty. The moment when the nation will need them is fast approaching, if it has not arrived already. But to provide them the conditions their 1950s predecessors exploited, the Department of Defense needs to act now. The technological potential of the future is vast beyond imagining. The threats facing the United States are just as great. As CNO Richardson has said, we need to “get faster.” It is time to dust off Red Raborn’s hunting license.

1. Glenn E. Bugos, Engineering the F-4 Phantom II: Parts into Systems (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996), 118, 205–6.

2. Neil Sheehan, A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon (New York: Random House, 2009), 177–200, 207–20.

3. Sheehan, A Fiery Peace , 273–74.

4. William Klingaman, David S. Patterson, and Ilana Stern (eds.), “Killian Committee Report,” Foreign Relations of the United States , 1955–1957, vol. 19 “National Security Policy” (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1990), Document 9.

5. ADM I. J. Galantin, USN (Ret.), Submarine Admiral: From Battlewagons to Ballistic Missiles (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 230; Gary E. Weir, Forged in War: The Naval-Industrial Complex and American Submarine Construction, 1940–1961 (Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 1993), 247–48.

6. Sheehan, A Fiery Peace , 433.

7. Sheehan, A Fiery Peace , 235–49, 322–23, 334–37, 350–57, 409–18, 425–32.

8. Galantin, Submarine Admiral , 231; CAPT Dominic A. Paolucci, USN (Ret.), “The Development of Navy Strategic Offensive and Defensive Systems,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 96, no. 5 (May 1970): 217.

9. Galantin, Submarine Admiral , 236.

10. Edward Clark, “Hard-driving Boss of a Big Weapon: A Push that Put Polaris Way Ahead,” Life 48, no. 22 (6 June 1960): 112.

11. Sheehan, A Fiery Peace , 244, 334, 354–55, 417; Hawkins et al. “Levering Smith,” 216.

12. Sheehan, A Fiery Peace , 244–49, 355; Hawkins et al. “Levering Smith,” 216.

13. Sheehan, A Fiery Peace , 24.

14. Frank H. Haymaker, “Delegation, Anyone?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 89, no. 9 (September 1963): 49.

15. Sheehan, A Fiery Peace , 355, 372; Isenberg, Shield of the Republic , 664.

16. Sheehan, A Fiery Peace , 341, 349, 416–18.

17. Isenberg, Shield of the Republic , 669, 675.

18. Sheehan, A Fiery Peace , 395.

19. Isenberg, Shield of the Republic , 672–73, 678; Weir, Forged in War , 250–51.

20. Sheehan, A Fiery Peace , 225–28, 300–302.

21. Paolucci, “The Development of Navy Strategic Offensive and Defensive Systems,” 219; Isenberg, Shield of the Republic , 663–64, 668, 672.

22. Sheehan, A Fiery Peace , 177–78, 371, 403, 437; Isenberg, Shield of the Republic , 664, 678–79; Paolucci, “The Development of Navy Strategic Offensive and Defensive Systems,” 215.

23. Isenberg, Shield of the Republic , 678.

24. Sarah Bridger, Scientists at War: The Ethics of Cold War Weapons Research (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 4, 222–44; Vanessa M. Gezari, “The Quiet Demise of the Army’s Plan to Understand Afghanistan and Iraq,” The New York Times , 18 August 2015, ; “AAA Opposes U.S. Military’s Human Terrain System Project,” American Anthropological Association, .

25. “Acquisition Corps,” Career Management, Acquisition Workforce, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition, ; Kristy N. Kamarck et al. Evaluating Navy’s Funded Graduate Education Program: A Return-on-Investment Framework (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2010), xiv–xv.

26. General of the Army H. H. Arnold, USAAF, Memorandum for Dr. von Kármán, 7 November 1944, “AAF Long Range Development Program,” in Toward New Horizons , vol. 1: “Science, the Key to Air Supremacy,” iii.

27. Sheehan, A Fiery Peace , 118–24.

Commander Holwitt is the capability development department head at the Undersea Warfighting Development Center Tactical Analysis Group. He is an active-duty submarine officer who has served in four fast-attack nuclear submarines. A 2003 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he earned a Ph.D. in history from Ohio State University. He is the author of "Execute Against Japan": The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (Texas A&M University Press, 2009).


Conferences and Events

WEST 2019

Wed, 2019-02-13 - Fri, 2019-02-15

Sharpening the Competitive Edge: Are We Ready to Compete, Deter, and Win Globally? Wednesday, 13 February - Friday, 15 February...

2019 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

View All

From the Press

23 January - Book Talk

Wed, 2019-01-23

9 February - Presentation

Sat, 2019-02-09

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

As an independent forum for over 140 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