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Leadership and Technology—A View from the Bridge
By Lieutenant Andrew M. Petruska, U. S. Navy First Lieutenant, USS Racine (LST-1191)
In the dim outlines of an Arctic dawn the first indications of another ship came from a barely perceptible electronic signal. Growing in intensity, the signal was joined by another. It was analyzed and evaluated by specialists working together in the maze of equipment within the sleek hull of the guided missile destroyer. And so, when the Soviet ship came into sight, the lone destroyer was not surprised that she was being shadowed by a powerful adversary. What was surprising, though, was the host of smaller vessels which, one by one, were transformed from the merest shadows against the shifting mists into the realities of steel warships. Their ensigns fluttering curiously from the sterns, each ship carried out her duties in the strangely disorganized formation until one, breaking away from the others, cut smartly under the destroyer’s stern and stationed herself 50 yards away. She was our escort, and, looking across the short distance between our bridge and hers, it seemed to me that the young officer looking back at me was little different from myself. Or was he?
What system had brought him to the bridge of his ship? In the brotherhood felt between seamen of all nationalities was there yet some crucial difference between us which in the moment of battle might tip the scales slightly in his favor? A crewman on the deck of the Soviet vessel called across the water, and then with a wide sweep of his hand he motioned as if inviting me to leap the distance which separated us. Other sailors repeated his gesture and soon most of the bundled figures on deck and leaning out of passageways were gesticulating eagerly and calling out words which were to us unintelligible. What was the message?
The realities of maneuvering quickly in response to the changing tactical situation left little time for speculating at that time what the meaning of those few words might be- The time passed quickly, the watches were relieved, and soon our destroyer was alone once more.
This meeting of the U.S. ship and the Soviet formation was duly noted at command centers in the Pacific Fleet
ar>d in Washington. It was analyzed and then recorded as another data bit ln the magnetic memory of the computers which collectively store the comings and goings of such vessels.
hen the event was soon forgotten by all.
But in reality, this incident can be considered a microcosm of the situation in which our Navy finds itself to- ay- It is a situation which is the logical result of our plans and policies of man>' decades, and reflects the often tacitly assumed postures which are in- erent in our national character. As SUch, it reflects our deepest, perhaps even unconscious, attitudes toward the strategy and leadership which we w°uld employ to defend ourselves or, conversely, hurl our naval strength against an enemy. It is a microcosm ^hich portrays a world view that has ailed us in the past and has frighten- ln8 implications for our future. It is a result of the interplay between our VleWs of leadership and technology and the relative importance of these tw° qualities.
a people we are the products of °ur environment. Forged in the up- aval of a bloody revolution, our na- tlon reflects an interesting progression
!! chat of the embattled farmer at °ncord bridge, John Paul Jones gainst the British fleet, or Stephen
ecatur leading a raid against the Irf-
^ghting man emerged in World War ^as the “doughboy” stemming the uns from overrunning all of Europe. J1 World War II he became Ensign g.e°rge H. Gay of Torpedo Squadron ght pressing home the attack on the ^Panese carriers at Midway in the face ^possible odds. He served in the Q^S ^°e/ (DD-533) as she charged a line Japanese battleships at Leyte U blown out of the water but Nonetheless accomplishing a mission n *n the face of individual defeat.
1 hold ourselves, collectively at fo^ to be a qualitatively superior rce- Historically, it has seemed that
perception of the nature of the
and the way in which conflicts
Won or lost. Our perception of the ng man of America’s early years r’Poli pirates. With a brief respite er the Civil War, the American
our victories have resulted from our better technology combined with a common-sense approach to leadership which resulted in the production of leaders more capable than those of our enemies. However, in the last three decades, our response to increasing threat has focused predominantly in the area of qualitative improvements. This system has produced such technological accomplishments as the atomic bomb, the nuclear submarine, advanced aircraft such as the F-14, and sophisticated computer systems such as the Naval Tactical Data System, to name a few.
While our system is to meet threat with technology, our most likely international adversaries have historically met threats with increased numbers of troops, platforms, and weapon systems. While often not as technologically sophisticated as our own, the application of this approach gained victory for the Soviets in World War II and for the Communist Chinese in their civil war. The Soviets and Chinese, though perhaps for different cultural reasons, have also shown a significantly greater tolerance for accepting personnel casualties. While in the past the denouement from these two trends has not been critical, the increasing pace of technological advancement threatens to produce some startling results, for the net result of our system is to produce fewer leaders. Is this significant?
If we accept the premise that leadership is something which can be learned, then it is logical that we take advantage of opportunities to identify and train those best fitted for leadership positions. This poses an interesting problem when, as can be seen from the vast amount of literature on the subject, there is no fail-safe method for identifying leaders. In fact, there is considerable variance in the approaches used to train even those who are selected as having leadership potential. In the pages of this forum, leadership has been defined as “intangible,” an “essence,” perhaps, which somehow has escaped scientific scrutiny. Of course, speaking of leadership in these terms will lead us about as far as those same terms did when applied to chemistry and physics during the Middle Ages. At the other end of the spectrum, some would have us believe that the field of leadership can be reduced to a data card and fed into a computer and that it is possible to measure, evaluate, and predict leadership performance. Regrettably, although significant advances have been made in this direction, social scientists cannot yet agree on a reasonably accurate system for the identification and education of leaders. In the interim, we must rely on a pragmatic approach to leader selection and education and take maximum advantage of the information we do have about leadership.
Command at sea is the ultimate leadership position for the unrestricted line officer. In this regard it has long been assumed that the position of the CO of a ship at sea is somehow unique and requires special screening and training. Certainly this view is supported by the widely-held feeling within the Navy that the job of a commanding officer is not just another billet to be filled; it demands only the very best talent. It is possible to give COs the necessary technical knowledge needed to accomplish the job. There are many programs under way in the service today which purport to do just that—prospective CO/XO schools, senior officer’s material course, and human resources management courses, to name a few. While these efforts are commendable, I am reminded of the statement made by one high-ranking German naval officer at the close of World War II. In analyzing U-boat performance, he observed, the single greatest factor which determined the success of a boat was the skill and fighting spirit of her commanding officer. All skippers received identical “training,” but no two skippers performed identically. This same observation probably can be applied to commanding officers of destroyers and air squadrons as well.
The point here is that commanding officers cannot be trained the way we train an executive of the telephone company. The only way to “train” commanding officers is to give them ships and men to command and, when we have done our best to equip them with the best technical knowledge we
cause Navy ships cost too much to then we are either (1) not correc calculating all the costs, or (2) we ^ not running our ships efficiently. B 1
can provide, launch them out upon the sea to succeed or fail as their individual talents and situations permit. The most advanced synthetic trainers we have ashore cannot duplicate the environment the CO must face alone at sea; trainers can only assist him in mastering the details of his job. Ultimately, a man who serves successive tours as a commanding officer should realize more fully his capabilities and limitations and apply this knowledge to make himself a better leader. He becomes, in the popular parlance, a proven subspecialist.
Many senior officers in the Navy today can, no doubt, look back with great pride upon their days as commanding officers. Many of these leaders have had multiple commands at sea. But what is in store for the future? Will the admirals and captains of the 1980s (our lieutenants and lieutenant commanders of today) be able to do the same? Hardly, given the current size and posture of the fleet. Why do we not have more ships? And, if we can do no better in numbers than we are at present, what are the costs involved?
While rising costs of weapon systems can be attributed to economic factors alone, our view that qualitative improvements in weapon systems are the best way to meet the threat has reinforced and multiplied the cost involved. Although cost is often considered as the critical variable in weapons-acquisition decisions, our posture here has a direct effect on leadership as well. The increasing technological sophistication of weapon systems obviously results in higher per-unit cost. (We now pay as much for a patrol gunboat as we did for a destroyer in the early Sixties.) Accordingly, we must be content with fewer ships, and, in the interest of reducing personnel costs, these must be manned by the fewest number of personnel possible. While we can compensate to some extent for the loss in training opportunities which our ratings experience, we must live with the fact that we are losing valuable, even critical opportunities to train the leaders who must command our ships and squadrons in battle.
It would seem that budgetary restrictions are the controlling factors in ship and weapon systems acquisitions. Because of this, we have developed sophisticated methods for dealing with the budgetary process, fashioning a host of indicators to mark our progress from conception to implementation of a weapon system. We hold this to be important enough to develop officers whose specialty is simply weapon systems acquisition management. While we have systems dedicated to dealing with the mechanics of acquisition, we have no system or method which can evaluate the impact of these acquisitions on the leadership posture of the fleet. In effect, what are the leadership costs of these new weapon systems?
Certainly we cannot accept inferior weapon systems on the grounds that we need to train more leaders. What must be realized, however, is that these are areas of cost analysis where the leadership costs could be sign*f|- cant enough to tip the scales in favl,t of an alternate approach to the pro^' lem. For example, we have seen in <e' cent years a new designation appl‘e to some of our ships—T-AO afl T-ATF. Essentially Navy hulls manne by civilian crews, these vessels are seeIj as more “cost effective” by virtue 0 their smaller crews and ability ^ spend more time at sea in forwaf operating areas. But are they more el fective? Perhaps in terms of day-to-dJ) costs the T-ships are better. Howeve(' we delude ourselves when we thu1, that the long-term leadership costs 0 such actions can be ignored. We giving away valuable ships to tra111 merchant crews at the expense of °u| own most valuable commitment: [l train tomorrow’s naval leaders in ^ business of commanding ships at s^’ Of course, carrying the T-ship conc^F to its ultimate conclusion, why 01 have T-DDGs or T-CVs? Clearly, if
cannot support our commitments bf
eyond the scope of this essay to evalUate the latter premise, but the former must surely be placed in better perspective.
We must also mention the fallacy of assuming that we can predict a commanding officer’s performance. AI- 1 °ugh high-performing junior offi- tend to mature into good COs, tt is not always the case. Those qual- !tles which we demand in a command- lng officer are not always apparent nor J*re they adequately tested at junior evels of shipboard life. An officer may .e a good XO, but not possess the Pagination and spirit to excel as a C°- In short, it is very difficult to Ptedict performance in this most m^ical job. We must be alert to the ate-blooming officer as well as the of- 1Cer whose performance as a CO in- 1Cates that he is not "best fitted” to C(Pmand.
j. the selection of commanding of- Cers our process must be broad en°Ugh t0 xnclu<de a planned diversity the path which leads to command. 0 use the surface line as but one ex- arriple, it was the consensus a few ^ears ago that experience in weapon Sterns, or at least operations, was essential for the rising young fleet offiCer; Today, that emphasis has shifted *dly to engineering, in line with J" advancement sequence in the u Marine force. While the future ay prove this doctrine to be true, I atTl reminded of the wise words of one 'Pnianding officer whom I especially tnired, “Remember, there’s always e possibility that you just might be Wrong " jn short, let us not lock our- Ves into so rigid a career path that
we do not take advantage of a unique resource: the amazingly diversified talents of the pool of officers from which we will draw the leaders for our ships and squadrons.
We have seen in the past quarter century the results of our views of leadership and technology. Our increasingly-sophisticated weapons did not buy us victory in Korea, only a festering stalemate. Worse, our sophistication in Vietnam merely brought us defeat with fewer casualties, but defeat nevertheless. While the reasons for this defeat involve complicated moral and political issues, it is apparent now that the billions wasted in gadgetry might have been more cost effective had we invested the money in training indigenous leaders equal to those the opposition was able to place in the field. The war in Vietnam, like other revolutions, was won not by machines, but by men and women under strong and effective leadership. Therein may be the greatest leadership lesson to be learned from such a debacle.
It is frightening to realize that with our “silver bullet’’ approach to weapons acquisition we will ultimately reduce our output of proven, experienced leaders to a minimum. On the other side, because of a differing view of leadership and technology, our potential adversaries grow apace in both platforms and the trained men to command and direct them. Depending on how we interpret the military history of the past decades—in effect, our view of the relationship between leadership and technology—this dichotomy can be viewed with either alarm or indifference.
In the press of day-to-day duties the naval officer is inclined by necessity to look at the details of his environment. Life at sea demands that this be so. However, from time to time we must reflect on the macro-consequences of our views and actions which impinge on the selection and training of our leaders. Above all, we must create new opportunities for our commanding officers and prospective commanding officers to perfect the skills which they will need in the hour of trial at sea, whether in war or in peace. No other policy can be justified. No other action can be as important to the future of our Navy.
We must begin now to measure and evaluate the leadership costs of our decisions, to try to understand the impact of our actions in terms beyond the shifting priorities of one fiscal year to another. We must, in short, realize that in the interplay between leadership and technology, it is superior leadership which we must trust when the fates of fleets and nations hang in the balance. It is such leadership that we must consciously strive to obtain.
As we chart our course into the future I remember the microcosm of ships on the slate grey sea that Arctic dawn so long ago. The message that was called across the water seems clearer now with the passage of time and history. The Soviet sailors that day were saying, “We are the best; join us, comrade, for we have assumed sovereignty of the seas. We are the many; you are the few.”
Hallowed be Thy Name
Admiral of the Fleet, The Earl Mountbatten of Burma was describing the problems of rn°rale on board a World War I destroyer, HMS Wishart, he commanded after she was ec°rnmissioned in 1935. A number of the crew of HMS Daring was transferred to the ship, the new captain was faced with creating a motto equal to that of the Daring—“Daring y name, daring by nature.” What could he do with Wishart, the name of an obscure 18th entury flag officer?
j. the commissioning ceremony he told his assembled crew; “Our ship is daily on the ‘Ps of millions—'Our Father, Wishart in heaven. . . .’”
Rear Admiral John R. Wadleigh, USN (Retried)
e Naval Institute will pay $25.00 for each anecdote published in the Proceedings.)