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Second Honorable Mention
Vincent Astor Memorial Leadership Essay Contest
Exposing the Myth of Technocracy
By Lieutenant B. R. Galvin, U.S. Navy
The sense that one must opt either for the technocratic or the humanistic leadership style is a great problem for us as we steam into the difficult waters of the 1990s. The perceived dichotomy between technical excellence and leadership skills
can be seen in two stereotypes that are pervasive in popular accounts of war. The first is the leader a la John Wayne—a man of great stamina and moral courage standing up for what is right against an unresponsive military bureaucracy and
At sea, sailors must have confidence in their equipment and their ability to operate it. They must also have confidence in the technical competence of their officers, who make the decisions with which they all must live—or die.
triumphing in the end by sheer force of character. These leaders often make decisions based on gut instinct, against the carefully calculated advice of their technically competent but less visionary subordinates. We all identify to some extent with these characters, for they display
traits we naturally desire to share; no one wants to be an uninspired underling presenting precisely calculated but pointless advice. The other stereotype can be summed up in one word: technocrat. This word has never had a good connotation; the press often uses it to describe Soviet bureaucrats who use “scientific” methods to plan an economy that we all know is a shambles. Technocrats are generally perceived as believing that all problems, when properly formulated, are purely technical in nature and thus amenable to precise and objective solutions. Technocrats are usually assumed to be insensitive, unfeeling managerial types who are seldom attuned to the needs of their subordinates. The image of Admiral Hyman Rickover comes to mind, ruthlessly driving hordes of cowed Navy and civilian workers in the nuclear field to higher levels of productivity.
In our Navy today, the natural tension between two very powerful images—the John Wayne-style “humanistic” leader and the soulless technocrat—has been exacerbated by the powerful mystique of Admiral Rickover and his nuclear clones. This has led to the development of the myth of technocracy, which describes a great Navy being taken over by a dedicated band of technocratic engineers and forced to do business the Rickover way— ruthless analytical efficiency at all costs, distrust of juniors (who are assumed to be incompetent), and immersion in a sea of details, even at the highest levels of leadership. In this myth, the common warrior is ignored, or, more properly, is viewed as a quantifiable and easily manipulated factor in management issues.
This myth (and it is only a myth) is a discredit to many, both in and out of the nuclear Navy, who feel that technical excellence is essential to good leadership in a modem Navy. Admiral Kinnard
McKee, in particular, has been hailed by Naval Academy graduates from the days when he was superintendent as having turned things around at the Academy by getting out among the midshipmen and finding out what their problems and needs really were. Later, when Admiral Kickover left the Navy and Admiral McKee became the Director of the Naval Reactors Program, he put an end to the legendary capriciousness of the entrance examinations for nuclear officer candidates and took many other measures to make the nuclear Navy a more humane organization.
But Admiral McKee also recognized the truth of a statement made by thcn- Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Carlisle A. H. Trost:
“To compete in the world, to serve as a naval officer, today you must have a technical background. If you become an inveterate reader, if an idle moment never finds you without a book in your hand, the broad knowledge will come to you. But without a background in deep technical knowledge, and without the resulting confidence that moves you to unravel technical complexities wherever you find them, you will always be a wallflower in the ballroom of progress, and your success in our profession will suffer accordingly.”
Judging by the level of technical proficiency in the fleet today, this truth is only partially taken to heart by the majority of naval officers. While not neglecting the need for broad study in the history of war, in strategy, in politics (for war is, as Karl von Clausewitz said, a continuation °f politics by other means), and to some extent in the humanities, the naval officer of today must at all costs achieve technical excellence if he is to succeed at sea. This is not an issue of technocracy, it is an issue of technical excellence, and it is often obscured or rejected because of its seeming compliance with the myth of technocracy.
Sailors in a ship at sea during war are m a unique situation vis-a-vis soldiers, airmen, and even Marines. Unlike their counterparts on land, they have very few options in a battle. They can only retreat if the ship retreats, which is a decision the captain makes. They cannot desert, and they have little to gain by shirking their duties. Unlike a soldier who is faint at heart and strives to avoid risk by leaving his position only when it is absolutely unavoidable, the sailor’s risk is tied up inevitably in the risk to his ship. If it sinks, so does he; if it makes it through, then so, most likely, will he. This being the case, all of the rhetoric concerning John Wayne-style inspirational leadership is rather absurd; during the protracted time of tension leading to an engagement at sea, stirring the men to a fever pitch is counterproductive in the extreme. They will be fatigued much more quickly and thus less attentive to their machines—their only means of inflicting harm on the enemy. What is needed in a ship going in harm’s way in today’s high-tech maritime battle space is a resolute calm at all stations, a quiet intensity applied to each task based on the knowledge that each task is critical to all the rest, and that everyone sinks or swims together. This calm can only be achieved if the men have confidence in themselves and in the officers who in a warship are required to make decisions that determine the fate of all hands.
The men get their confidence in themselves from their knowledge that they have learned their task well and have practiced it until they can do it in their sleep; they are technically proficient, and they know it. A radar operator who has mastered the intricacies of every knob on his set and every fix to get a better picture, who knows the detection capabilities of his radar in every mode and every kind of casualty condition, is going to be confident of his ability to operate that set to the greatest benefit of his ship. But he will only turn his set on or off at the order of the captain, the ship’s weapons coordinator (SWC), or the tactical action officer (TAO). His confidence in these men who can augment or negate his own value to the team, who can, in fact, kill him if careless, does not come from a visceral sense that the officers are great leaders, decisive and bold, courageous and of high moral character. His confidence comes from the knowledge that his superior is decisive, bold, intelligent, courageous, and intimately familiar with the effects of changes in the mode of operation of the radar. If the radar operator knows that Lieutenant Commander X has studied everything he could get his hands on concerning the radar and its use and that he has experimented with various techniques over the last tew months of peace while trying to get a complete grasp of its capabilities, it he knows that the officer consistently discussed his ideas with the operators to get their impressions, he will confidently shift to stand-by when so directed. On the other hand, if Lieutenant Commander X is a tough, gutsy John Wayne type who always leaves decisions up to the chief and never really understands what he is saying when he gives canned orders from the
Battle Organization Manual (and who never once sat at the console and did it himself), then when he runs up and says, “Place the radar in stand-by now!” there is likely to be a tremor of fear in the heart of any thinking sailor.
The TAO, and any other officer entrusted with tactical decision making, must recognize the complex and technical nature of what lie is undertaking and prepare himself accordingly. Careful consideration of Admiral Trost’s injunction to pursue technical excellence is a great place to start. There are two parts to Trost’s comment: reading and technical preparation. In considering technical preparation, set aside any fear that an engineering degree or nuclear power training is needed; this is not true. But an aspiring TAO should be sure that he understands intuitively the principles of operation of each sensor and weapon system available. He must read the technical manuals—not the maintenance section (as myth might have it), but the principles of operation and modes of operation sections. Also, any casualty modes should be thoroughly understood. Usually this reading should be supplemented by sitting at the console and questioning the operator. (“Do you really make use of that dead time on watch in the middle of the night?”) These inquiries, and the development of real system understanding, will generate a sense of confidence that cannot come from “humanistic” leadership alone. The TAO must never cease trying to improve his understanding of the systems, their interrelationships, and their effective operation. Decisiveness is important, but the only way to ensure quality decisions is to know what you’re talking about.
In the weapons world, the TAO must understand all of his available methods of putting ordnance on target. He must know not just basic ranges and ordnance types but must understand thoroughly the ability of each weapon to engage different types of targets under different types of circumstances. He must be able to make technically competent trade-off decisions to ensure maximum system effectiveness. He will be the only one with access to all information at the moment of truth (except maybe the captain), so he'd better know what options he has. There may not be time for a debrief or critique if he doesn’t. Consider, for example, the post of TAO on a non-Aegis cruiser. It would be impossible, without having a background in deep technical knowledge, to attain the required level of knowledge to be able to go into a shooting war confident of being able to fill in for the captain, operating the complex ship to its utmost and taking full account of the capabilities of the enemy, the impact of the environment, and a random scattering of possibly significant equipment degradations.
In addition to technical knowledge, Admiral Trost enjoined us to be inveterate readers, never finding ourselves in an idle moment without a book in our hands. The technically proficient officer also must study the political, historical, and ethical dimensions of his profession. The Law of the Sea and our position on the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, for instance, should be items familiar to any would-be tactician or strategist. A passing knowledge of Corbett and Mahan, a sprinkling of Clausewitz and Jomini, and a careful reading of retired Captain Wayne P. Hughes, Jr.’s, Fleet Tactics (Naval Institute Press, 1986) should be considered a minimum start in the study of war at sea. It is important to remember that this is our chosen profession, and we may die in its conduct. To do so ignorant of what we are doing and why would be a travesty. But most important is to realize that tactical innovation takes place at sea. Only by a combination of deep technical preparation, thorough systems knowledge, and a thoughtful study of naval history and
contemporary naval thought can an officer gain sufficient mastery of the art of naval tactics to aspire to innovate. This is more critical than it may appear since there are only a few people who at any time are devoted full-time to tactics development; they cannot cover every possibility. If we hope to achieve maritime superiority or even temporary control of the sea against a resolute enemy, we had better have officers who are capable of tactical cleverness and even deviousness, within the limits of the Law of War.
Admiral Trost offered some very important advice when he made the quoted remarks at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1988, yet the pervasive myth of technocracy has led to its rejection by some. Even worse, many (or most) officers probably just slip through the intellectual cracks. If you find yourself talking of doing a “data dump” after the TAO portion of Department Head School,1 pause for a moment to think. You, and only you, are capable of making yourself into a good TAO in a few months; your life and the lives of your crew may depend on your level of knowledge. You cannot afford to presume that you can dump data. Any department head who reports to a combatant ship without having read the Combat Systems Doctrine should similarly consider whether he is missing a vital point. Who does he think is going to ensure that the ship fights effectively? The captain, all by himself?
The myth of technocracy, which envisions a “creeping nukeism” taking over the Navy and “abandoning the ageless precepts of military professionalism,”2 is, indeed, only a myth. But at the same time, nuclear engineers who read technical manuals with ease should complete their education by learning about the “big picture” of our profession through their own reading. It is not the Navy’s obligation alone to train us to become brilliant, innovative tacticians.
'Kenneth P. Weinberg, “A New Look at SWOS," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1990, pp. 103-105.
Jeffrey E. McFadden, “We Need Leaders, Not Technocrats,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1990, p. 84.
Lieutenant Galvin is a student in the underwater acoustics master’s degree program at the Naval Postgraduate School. He served in engineering billets in the USS Bagley (FF-1069) and USS While Plains (AFS-4) prior to attending Nuclear Power School in Orlando. Florida. His last sea tour was as electrical officer on the USS South Carolina (CGN-37).
ARLEIGH BURKE ESSAY CONTEST
The U.S. Naval Institute is proud to announce its seventh annual Arleigh Burke Essay Contest, which replaces the former annual General Prize Essay Contest.
Three essays will be selected for prizes.
Anyone is eligible to enter and win. First prize earns *2,000, a Gold Medal, and a Life Membership in the Naval Institute. First Honorable Mention wins *1,000 and a Silver Medal. Second Honorable Mention wins *750 and a Bronze Medal.
The topic of the essay must relate to the objective of the US. Naval Institute: “The advancement of professional, literary, and scientific knowledge in the naval and maritime services, and the advancement of the knowledge of sea power.” Essays will be judged by the Editorial Board of the U.S. Naval institute.
essay, and the motto. This envelope will not be opened until the Editorial Board has made its selections.
5. The awards will be presented to the winning essayists at the 117th Annual Meeting of the membership of the Naval Institute.
Letters notifying the award winners will be mailed on or about 1 February 1991, and the unsuccessful essays will be returned to their authors on that date.
- Essays must be original, must not exceed 4,000 words, and must not have been previously published. An exact word count must appear on the title page.
- All entries should be directed to: Publisher, U.S. Naval Institute, Annapolis, Maryland 21402.
- Essays must be received on or before 1 December 1990 at the U.S. Naval Institute.
- The name of the author shall not appear on the essay. Each author shall assign a motto in addition to a title to the essay. This motto shall appear (a) on the title page of the essay, with the title, in lieu of the author's name, and (b) by itself on the outside of an accompanying sealed envelope containing the name and address of the essayist, the title of the
- All essays must be typewritten, double-spaced, on paper approximately 81/2,,xlT'. Please include your social security' number and a short biographical sketch. Submit two complete copies.
- The winning and honorable mention essays will be published in the Proceedings. Essays not awarded a prize may be selected for publication in the Proceedings. The writers of such essays will be compensated at the rate established for purchase of articles.
- An essay entered in this contest should be analytical and/or interpretive, not merely an exposition, a personal narrative, or
a report Deadline: 1 December 1990