The key factor for success in wars at sea is not the quality of materiel but the human element. These wars are won or lost at the operational and strategic-not tactical-levels. Hence it is critical to educate and train future naval commanders and their staffs in all aspects of the theory and practice of operational warfare at sea. The U.S. Navy should have unwavering focus on operational leadership and warfighting. In terms of materiel, tactical proficiency, and the quality of its Sailors, the Navy today is undoubtedly far superior to any potential major adversary. Yet it remains obsessed with technology and tactics, as illustrated by its almost uncritical embrace of network-centric warfare and the effects-based approach to operations.
In general, the Navy tends to neglect the central role of service colleges in educating future naval operational commanders and staffs. It seriously lags in providing joint professional military education (JPME) to officers. As of May 2008, about 48 percent of naval officers at pay grades O-5 and O-6 had completed JPME Phase 1, and only 21 percent were Phase 2-qualified.1
Service colleges offer a unique education that is not available at civilian universities. The U.S. Army Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; the Army War College at Carlisle, Pennsylvania; the Air Command and Staff College and Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama; and the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Virginia all provide graduate-level education for officers of all services and selected civilian servants. However, their curricula are primarily focused (as they should be) on land and air warfare and joint warfare. Only the Naval War College (NWC) provides education in both theory and practical application (decision-making and planning), in not only joint operational warfare but also operational warfare at sea.2 For the past 30 years, its highly regarded and effective program has focused on strategy, policy, and national-security decision-making.
The Navy must, finally, recognize a major difference between education and training. Future naval leaders cannot be trained only for their responsibilities; they must also be educated. They cannot be successful practitioners without also being operational thinkers. Flag officers should not learn about their responsibilities by trial and error after they have been appointed to senior positions.
Clearly, no service college can guarantee that all its graduates will be solid operational thinkers and practitioners. But they can educate officers how to think (not what to think) about naval and joint warfare. They can stimulate and inspire students to embark on a long voyage of self-education in preparation for the challenges ahead. By sending its most promising officers to resident programs at the NWC and other service colleges, the Navy will, over time, develop a large pool of highly educated officers to be selected for high positions. This is a proven way for any service to ensure the above-average ability of its future leaders.
Who Is Graduating?
As of 2009, only about 33 percent of the Navy's flag officers were graduates of a service college, and 5 percent had completed two service colleges. By contrast, 100 percent of the Army and Air Force generals had completed two service colleges, while about 95 percent of U.S. Marine Corps generals were graduates of a single service college, and 90 percent had completed two colleges.
The Navy was fortunate that in the prewar years, despite austere budgetary resources and a general neglect of the military, a number of educated officers proved to be solid operational thinkers and practitioners when they reached high command positions. In July 1942, all four-star and 16 three-star admirals (100 percent) had attended the NWC, as had 61 permanent out of 72 (85 percent) and 3 temporary out of 11 (27 percent) rear admirals. The examples of admirals Ernest J. King, Chester W. Nimitz, William F. Halsey, Raymond A. Spruance, Richmond K. Turner, and many others offer the best proof of the benefits of attending the NWC.
By contrast, at the beginning of 2008 only 66 admirals were graduates of the college: 2 four-star, 5 three-star, 19 two-star, and 38 one-star. (In 2009, about 325 flag officers were on the Navy's list.) The prevalent view on the value of service-college education is exemplified by a statement of one rear admiral who told me some ten years ago that if he was sent to the NWC, that "would have been the end of [his] career."
But some of the best-known and successful admirals were instructors at the college in the interwar years. Admiral Spruance served two tours there; Admirals Turner and Joseph M. Reeves also taught at Newport.3 Spruance reportedly commented that thinking for two years about warfare during his stint was the best preparation for what he did as Fleet commander in war.
Some argue that the lack of real interest in educating future Navy commanders is because of the service's culture. Yet this was not true in the interwar years. The situation began to change in the 1950s, when leading Navy positions were occupied with admirals who had not attended the NWC. At this time, the U.S. military ignored the importance of operational warfare. The Korean War was considered an anomaly in the world of nuclear weapons.4 The fielding of ever-new long-range, precise, and lethal naval weapons and electronics led to the increasing obsession with technology and tactics.
For almost 50 years of the Cold War, the Navy did not entirely neglect the practical side of operational warfare at sea. It maintained a large forward presence in many parts of the world's oceans. Large and increasingly capable Soviet submarine forces required the U.S. Navy to have an operational rather than tactical perspective in antisubmarine warfare.
And yet, during the Cold War the Navy did not send its most promising operators to Newport or other service colleges. The reason was supposedly high operational tempo, along with the demands of operating advanced aircraft and complicated surface combatants, nuclear-powered submarines, and aircraft carriers. But the Navy's senior leaders are entrusted with commanding large forces and thousands of Sailors. Hence, the service simply cannot fail to properly educate and train personnel for the challenges ahead.
Requirements for the Job
An officer who aspires to achieve a high rank must devote considerable time to self-education throughout most of his or her professional career. There is no contradiction between being an operator and a thinker: the most successful military leaders have been those who were both thinkers and practitioners.
Obviously, future flag officers and members of the staff must have a mastery of the technology and tactics in their chosen specialties and a solid knowledge of other combat arms' tactics. Less obvious, perhaps, is the need to think broadly and far ahead-operationally. In general, operational thinking must be consciously developed in the course of an entire career.
Naval commanders think operationally when they have a theater-wide or operational perspective. All commanders feel comfortable thinking tactically; this is what they have done for most of their professional careers. Operational thinking helps the commander to differentiate between actions that are essential for the accomplishment of the ultimate objective and those that are conducted outside a given operational or strategic framework. The operational commander should always stay focused on the broader issues and trends in the situation instead of being concerned with minutiae. One who is too focused on physical combat might eventually achieve success, but at substantially greater losses and over a longer period.
These commanders must have a keen understanding of the relationship between strategy and policy on one hand and operational art and strategy on the other. They must also fully understand the distinctions among levels of war and how decisions and actions at one level affect events at other levels. They must have the ability to evaluate the features of physical environments in operational rather than tactical terms. And they should be able to assess the operational, versus tactical, impact of new technologies.
It is essential to possess a broad knowledge of foreign policy, diplomacy, geopolitics, international economy, finance, international law, ethnicity, and religions in a given theater. Otherwise, commanders will not accomplish their primary responsibilities in times of either peace or war. They should know other countries' history, society, and culture, and have a certain degree of social sophistication, because they have to interact closely with international political figures such as heads of state, ambassadors, and international organizations.5
A professional education should enhance mental agility, creativity, and innovative thinking.6 The process should encourage the development of initiative, flexibility, decisiveness, and willingness to take responsibility; mistakes should be corrected without condemnation.7
This education should begin early in a career. Naval officers with the greatest potential should be guided to embark on in-depth studies of naval/military history and the theory of operational art and strategy. Only through mastery of naval/military history and theory can naval officers gain the wide frame of reference necessary for sound planning and directing of maritime campaigns and major naval operations.8
Warfare does not have its own logic, but it has its own grammar, and the grammatical rules are deduced from studying naval and military history. Because very few naval commanders have experience commanding large forces, the best way to educate them to think operationally is through the study of the successes and failures of great naval/military leaders. Some of the greatest naval leaders were also great students of history.9
Role of the Naval War College
Ever since Commodore Stephen B. Luce became the first president of the NWC on 6 October 1884, its main mission has been to prepare future naval commanders and members of the staff for war. Luce wanted the Navy to have "a place where officers will not be only encouraged but required to study their profession proper-war-in a far more thorough manner than has ever heretofore been attempted and to bring to the investigation of the various problems of modern naval warfare the scientific methods adopted in other professions." This mission remains valid.
Today, some 600 mid-career naval officers, officers of other services, international naval officers, and civilians of federal agencies attend the NWC. The college has six in-residence programs. The College of Naval Warfare is the ten-month senior-level course (SLC) aimed at providing JPME Phase 2 education for officers in O-4/-5 rank. The College of Naval Command and Staff is the ten-month intermediate level course (ILC) that provides JPME Phase 1 education for officers in O-3 rank. The Naval Command College, established in 1956, aims to provide education to senior naval officers of allied and friendly countries. Its counterpart is the Naval Staff College, for international naval officers with 8-15 years of service.
The College's three teaching departments-Strategy and Policy, National Security Decision-Making, and Joint Military/Maritime Operations-are most directly involved in educating future leaders. The theory and practice of operational warfare is the responsibility of that department. A major expansion of its curriculum was initiated in 1994, and since then it has steadily improved. In 2006, the college restructured the SLC and ILC curricula, focusing almost exclusively on operational planning and contemporary operations.
Fixing the Problem
A number of organizational changes will improve the education of Navy officers in general and naval operational commanders in particular. Among other things, the Navy should significantly expand the role and importance of the NWC, the president of which should be a three-star admiral. This position should not be a retirement billet.
An increasing problem in recent years is that more and more naval officers who are non-operators are sent to attend the NWC's resident program. This practice should be reversed. The seminars should be composed mostly of operators, with only few selected non-operators. Likewise, civilian students should be limited to those who work in policy or intelligence-related government agencies.
All promising naval officers should be sent to resident courses at a service college. The Navy should stop its practice of sending lieutenants to ILC and lieutenant commanders to SLC. Web-based or off-campus programs are very useful, but there is simply no substitute for attending resident programs in Newport. Also, instead of having a non-observable fitness report, all officers attending colleges should be evaluated on their academic performance. This, in turn, should have a major impact on their future promotion as operators.
Serving as an instructor should not adversely affect future promotion; in fact, it should be the opposite. Many former Army, Marine, and Air Force instructors were promoted to flag rank after tours at the NWC, for example. Finally, the Navy needs to make a greater effort to prepare its flag officers for duties at sea and ashore in both the theory and practice of operational warfare. The service seems to pay more attention to educating its new flag officers in various business practices than in warfighting.
One solution would be to send all new flag officers for an intense two- or three-week course on operational warfare at sea. Such a course should be a prerequisite for attending the joint force maritime component commander/combined force maritime component commander course and for being admitted as a fellow at the Strategic Studies Group, both in Newport. At the NWC, the Navy should establish the true counterpart of the Army School of Advanced Military Studies, the Marine Corps School of Advanced War Fighting, and the Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. Such a program, called perhaps the College of Advanced Naval Studies, could offer a ten-month, highly intense education for 30-40 U.S. and international naval officers. Admission would be by application, competitive exam, and an interview.
The past decade brought several encouraging developments, but the Navy still needs to focus more on educating future operational commanders and their staffs. Persistent, strong opposition will have to be overcome, specifically resistance to organizational and cultural changes to educating intermediate and senior-level officers. The key is to continue to strengthen the role and importance of service colleges. Regardless of budgetary constraints, the Navy should never reduce its commitment to education and combat training. With a major peer competitor fast rising in the Pacific, the stakes are too high not to act.
2. Leonard D. Holder and Williamson Murray, "Prospects for Military Education," Joint Force Quarterly (spring 1998): p. 86.
3. Ibid., p. 83.
4. L. D. Holder, "Educating and Training for Theater Warfare," Military Review, September 1990, p. 86.
5. Maurice L. Todd, Solider, Statesman, Scholar: A Study of Strategic Generalship (Fort Leavenworth, KS: School of Advanced Military Studies, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 27 May 1994), p. 8.
6. Hermann Foertsch, Auswahl, Erziehung und Ausbildung zum Generalstabsoffizier: Eine kritische Betrachtung der deutschen Verhaeltnisse vordem 2. Weltkrieg, MS # P-031b, ZA/1 1856, Studien der Historical Division Headquarters, United States Army Europe, Foreign Military Studies Branch, BA-MA, p. 30; Wilhelm Speidel, Der Weg zum Generalstab, Auswahl, Erziehung u. Ausbildung des deutschen Generalstabsoffizier,e P-031a/26 Teil II, ZA/1 1875, German General Staff, Project #6: Training and Development of German General Staff Officers, vol. 26, part 2, Foreign Military Studies, Historical Division, HQ US Army, Europe, BA-MA, p. 31.
7. Charles G. Sutten, "Command and Control at the Operational Level," Parameters (winter 1986): p. 19.
8. Holder, "Educating and Training for Theater Warfare," pp. 87, 89, 91.
9. Herbert Richmond, National Policy and Naval Strength and Other Essays (London/New York/Toronto: Longmans, Green, 1934), pp. 285, 288-89.