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More Maritime Strategists—Now

By Captain Mark Hooper and Commander Tuan Pham, U.S. Navy

• Foster the ability for more officers to think strategically about the Navy’s role in national-security and defense strategies;

• Develop and maintain a dedicated cadre of educated and experienced maritime strategists for service, joint, and interagency assignments;

• Inform think tanks, academia, military colleges, and civilian researchers about the national-security role and issues; and

• Strengthen the linkage between strategy and budget. Facilitate and promote a “strategy-driven” budget and budget process.

The Navy Staff (OPNAV) in collaboration with the NWC is developing a roadmap to strengthen the ways and means to foster more maritime strategic thought within the Navy, build a cadre of dedicated strategists, develop an enterprise governance structure, and conduct outreach to the larger national-security community. In other words, they are working out the details of the CNO’s mandate for “processes, people, and systems” to draft, implement, and evolve the maritime strategy. 2

Maritime Strategists

Admiral Greenert characterized maritime strategists as thinkers who can develop policies and strategies to “create maritime power, anticipate national security challenges, invest naval resources to address those challenges, align budget to strategy, marshal and focus organizational efforts, and communicate maritime interests to partners, allies, and competitors.” 3 The national-security community has called increasingly for more strategic thought on the enduring and emerging maritime-security challenges posed by China, mounting competition for maritime resources, worsening global climate change, opening of the Arctic polar region, and increasing anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) threats. The Navy has largely responded with the Asia-Pacific Rebalance, AirSea Battle concept, development of counter-A2/AD capabilities and tactics, Global Maritime Intelligence Integration Plan, Maritime Domain Awareness Plan, Roadmap for Global Climate Change, and the Arctic Roadmap. However, many more intellectual investments are still needed in terms of development and implementation—particularly in the latter roadmaps, which will require new ways of thinking and greater collaboration with the scientific, academic, think-tank, and international communities.

There is also a growing demand for more strategically minded military planners who understand the relationship between strategy and the budget process, make judicious budgetary decisions, and can ensure what is being bought is truly needed to meet the current and future national-security requirements in terms of readiness, capacity, and capability. In his Sailing Directions and 2012 Position Report, the CNO called for “developing strategies to command the sea and project power . . . [and] enhance enduring U.S. advantages and create new ones.” Last April, on his behalf, the Operations, Plans, and Strategy staff (OPNAV N3/N5) promulgated the following national-security priorities and interests to various Navy-funded academic programs (NWC, Naval Post-Graduate School [NPS], fellowships, and scholarship programs) for research consideration: Maritime Strategy–Evolving Roles and Missions, Future Operational Environment and Impacts on Navy, Warfighting Concepts and Doctrine, Force Structure, and Strategic Laydown and Dispersal. 4

Currently, maritime strategic thought largely resides within the NWC, NPS, Federal Executive Fellowship (FEF) program, Politico-Military Masters (PMM) Program, OPNAV (Strategic Studies Group [SSG], Strategic Actions Group [SAG], and N3/N5), Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) team (when stood up), and various think tanks. All in all, these largely distributed efforts and activities could be better integrated and synchronized for intellectual synergy and resource management, and restructured to develop more maritime strategists who can think conceptually, imaginatively, systematically, and opportunistically with regard to the attainment of future success.

The NWC and NPS are the largest contributors to maritime strategic thought with their faculties of talented instructors and large student bodies. Annually, the National Security and Strategic Studies (NWC) and Security Studies (NPS) curricula produce 220 and 10 naval graduates respectively (mostly masters and a few doctorate degrees). 5 Considering that the last 25 years yielded an output of some 5,500 graduates reinforces the notion that this is not a simple output challenge, but perhaps one of allocation.


Structural limitations, usually implemented in response to past experiences, are mostly based on a scarcity model in which only the minimum amount of service members will receive the skills to meet the requirement. This in turn causes stress in the “fit/fill” model. Consider the case of the formal higher schooling provided at NWC and NPS. These graduate-level institutions provide foundational knowledge to students and then inspire graduates to continue self-learning as they progress up the ranks. Many of these budding maritime strategists leave the NWC and NPS with the requisite critical-thinking and writing skills but simply are not afforded the time, incentives, and additional career opportunities to sharpen and maintain those acquired skills. Many return to the Fleet to complete community or joint assignments rather than pursue future career opportunities to further develop and mature as maritime thinkers.

The intricate balance of meeting short-term manning requirements, long-term service interests, career milestones, and personal preferences is the heart of the matter. Barring important career milestone assignments, which should always remain the top detailing priority, more maritime-strategist opportunities should be given to “select” officers without risking their upward career mobility or hindering the detailing process. Warfare communities should regard these opportunities as competitive and career-enhancing, and encourage their most promising talent to take them while keeping them on track for their community screenings and promotions.

According to NWC Professor James Holmes, “Strategic thought is an opportunity cost imposed by naval culture, as transcribed into bureaucratic routine, and indeed by the intensely technical nature of seafaring in the machine age.” 6 He points out that the operational demands of naval service keep the focus on equipment and tactics, especially during the formative years of a career. Ships, submarines, and aircraft are complicated hardware that require time and commitment to master, operate, and maintain.

Tactical expertise requires continuous learning and practice for proficiency. That’s why warfare qualifications and demonstrated performance at sea are essential to upward career mobility. Combine that with career incentives (advancements, recognitions, and choice assignments) and disincentives (not screening for career milestone assignments), and there is an unspoken cautionary tale for junior officers to be mindful of their immediate surroundings and future.

The extant strategic environment exacerbates these cultural challenges. From a geopolitical perspective, the Navy has been on a prolonged strategic respite since the dissolution of the Soviet Navy 20 years ago. The lack of a challenging adversary tends to dull the strategic mind and lull it into a false sense of security, directing focus on routine events of direct career significance (inspection, exercise, training, or maintenance-overhaul period). 7 Additionally, for over a decade, the Navy has been committed to the war on terrorism. One of its consequences was the “needed” redirection of strategic thought to support the two land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has resulted in a generation conversant in Sunni/Shia issues and Middle East geopolitics but not as well versed in global maritime challenges such as a more assertive China. Now as the nation winds down commitments in the Middle East and turns its attention to the Asia-Pacific, the Navy accordingly should redirect more intellectual capital toward supporting the nation’s new strategic direction.

According to Holmes, “Keeping an engine or pump running demands attention now, whereas China is a remote, abstract-seeming focus for finite mental energy on which one would spend scarce time if forced to choose.” 8 He also points out that the Navy faces declining budgets and mounting pressures to cut costs across the board. As a result, throughout the Navy and at all echelons, most naval officers are more preoccupied with finding cost savings and innovative ways to do more with less—while maintaining warfighting capacity and readiness—than thinking about developing future capabilities, strategies, policies, and operating concepts.

Bravo Zulu to past generations of leaders who invested in strategic-thought programs well before Admiral Greenert’s announcement in June. Because of them, the Navy enjoys a sound base to build on and can seize a window of opportunity to modify and increase the investment that predecessors made in three areas: increasing the foundation of the enterprise, increasing the enterprise itself, and increasing its utility.

Increasing the Foundation

Warfighting first. In keeping with the CNO’s tenet of “warfighting first,” junior officers should spend their formative years focused on becoming warfighters and subject-matter experts and establishing their professional reputations within their respective warfare communities. They should balance their academic aspirations with the requirement to build a solid foundation of operational and technical expertise, the bedrock of strategy and policy. One cannot develop ends, ways, and means without foundational knowledge and a deep understanding of underlying warfighting principles, capabilities, operations, and tactics.

Operations, Plans, and Strategy (N3/N5) website. The Navy should establish and manage an OPNAV-sponsored “Navy Knowledge Online” website of FEF/PMM papers and products from think tanks and academic institutions. The latter should be selected based on the discrete priority information requirements set by N3/N5. The “one-stop shop” should also track what is being read to determine topical resonance and host a blog forum to promote dialogue between the national-security community and the Fleet. Last and perhaps most important, the website should be available to everyone in the Fleet, including junior officers, enlisted sailors, and midshipmen—untapped resources. Spark their interest, engage their intellect, solicit their thoughts, and encourage them to write professional articles from the “deckplate” perspective. More often than not, the best and brightest ideas come from the junior ranks who have an uncanny knack to ask insightful “why and how” questions.

NWC strategic initiatives. As Admiral Greenert has said, “The NWC is the intellectual capital of the Navy’s strategic thought . . . and where Fleet experience meets academic theory.” 9 The Navy should continue to support ongoing and planned NWC activities, particularly the well-established distance-education program and new naval-strategist programs. The former compensates for the limited capacity of the NWC resident educational programs, while the latter allows resident students to delve deeper into international security, economics, strategy, and the role of maritime power in the past, present, and future.

Identify and track career opportunities. The Navy should explore the best options to identify and track “select” officers for potential maritime-strategist opportunities. Whatever the decided option, it should be sustainable and incur minimal additional program costs.

Career mobility. The success of the NSE will ultimately depend on its enduring impact, buy-in from the warfare communities, and the upward career mobility of its constituents. Language that recognizes the value and contributions of maritime strategists should be added to the promotion board precepts.

Increasing the Enterprise

NPS, NWC, and Foreign NWC. Selection should be viewed as an acknowledgement of leadership potential and a milestone for advancement (as is the Army and Marine Corps mindset). These schools should continue to give all graduates credit for joint professional military education (JPME)–Phase I and appropriate additional qualification designators, and encourage students and graduates to write and publish professional articles.

• NPS graduates have a deep understanding of the value, utility, and impact of technology on strategies, policies, and operations. Select warfare-qualified junior officers who have completed at least two successful operational/staff tours and have technical background or demonstrated technical acumen. Promote maximum participation in the various academic-research groups: cyber, energy, global public policy, space systems, and undersea warfare.

• NWC produces strategically and operationally minded critical thinkers and skilled naval and joint warfighters prepared to meet the strategic and operational challenges of today and tomorrow. Select warfare-qualified junior officers who have successfully completed an operational-milestone assignment (department head-equivalent). Promote maximum participation in the advanced research program (Halsey, Mahan, and Gravely groups).

• Foreign NWC provides a unique opportunity to observe and study how other nations think about maritime strategy, strengthen working-level international partnerships, and develop language skills and regional cultural knowledge for future engagement. Select warfare-qualified junior officers who have successfully completed an operational-milestone assignment (department-head equivalent) and have foreign area background or demonstrated language proficiency. Encourage their participation in a host college-sponsored research program.

FEF/PMM programs. Select senior officers who have successfully completed an operational milestone assignment (command-equivalent) and NPS, NWC, or foreign NWC graduates who have best demonstrated their grasp of the strategic concepts and issues and possess strong critical thinking and writing skills. Other selection considerations could be JPME Phase I/II, joint qualification, and a balanced mix of warfare communities. Consider the following:

• Highly encourage Navy fellows and PMM students to write and publish on maritime topics. FEF and PMM programs are unique career opportunities to read, think, and write on matters of national-security significance and engage with civilian strategic thinkers for non-military perspectives.

• Adopt the “Marine Corps Fellows” model. 10 The Marine Corps appreciates the importance of understanding the drivers that shape future national-security policy and maintaining a positional advantage at the various think tanks and academic institutions. To this end, General James Amos, former Commandant of the Marine Corps, recently changed the intent and focus of his Marine Fellows to provide better insights into the current national-security drivers: They now provide direct inputs to the Commandant via his Strategic Initiatives Group. Hence, like the SSG, Navy Fellows and PMM students under the purview of N3/N5 should have a similar link to the CNO via the SAG. The increased access will give the Navy a greater degree of situational awareness and influence national-security policymakers with a better understanding of the nature and value of the Navy to the nation.

• Encourage Navy Fellows and PMM students to actively participate in the NWC-sponsored CSF, International Seapower Symposium (ISS), and war games run by the Halsey, Mahan, and Gravely scholar programs. The CSF and ISS provide unique opportunities to understand and discuss key issues facing the Navy, other services, and allies, while the war games use operational analysis to examine in detail strategic and operational issues such as deterrence, escalation control, and access-denial challenges.

Increasing the Utility of the Enterprise

SSG, SAG, and QDR team. The incoming SSG, SAG, and QDR team (when stood up) could consider drawing from the ranks of already vetted candidates. Dedicated or ad hoc strategy-development groups like the Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower and Arctic Strategy could also draw from the same pools.

• FEF/PMM graduates are proven maritime strategists who have spent the last one to two years deeply immersed in maritime-strategic thought. They have also built extensive inroads to top-tiered think tanks and academic institutions and benefitted from exposure to alternative non-military perspectives, access to top-notch strategic thinkers for networking and mentorship, and experience in informing and influencing policymakers. A follow-on reutilization tour with the SSG, SAG, or QDR team makes detailing sense.

• Former National Security Council staff members and Secretary of Defense corporate fellows could also be considered for their unique experiences and potential contributions.

Leverage think tanks for strategic thought, collaboration, and mentorships. Joint papers with think-tank subject-matter experts should be highly encouraged, and mentorship programs with think tanks should be fostered. Events such as the Johns Hopkins University/Applied Physics Laboratory Rethinking Seminar, Center of Naval Analyses-sponsored Strategic Discussion Group, and various lectures open to the public should be promoted. When applicable, the posted events should be linked onto the Navy Knowledge Online website for optimum exposure.

Professional writing. The CNO’s charge to think, write, and publish could be met by establishing a partnership with the U.S. Naval Institute and other professional publications, and implementing a Navy-wide incentive program to encourage sophisticated writing on maritime topics from instructors, students, graduates, and participants of Navy-funded academic programs as well as from the Fleet. An annual Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED)-like symposium could showcase the best bodies of work. 11

As Admiral Greenert often says, “All the technology in the world is great, but without the right people, forget it . . . . [People] have been our asymmetric advantage.” 12 Just like today, tomorrow’s Navy will need more strategically minded leaders and a core cadre of maritime strategists to posture it ahead of maritime-security challenges—and help the nation navigate the waters of strategic uncertainty.

1. ADM Jonathan Greenert, USN, remarks, Current Strategy Forum 2014, Newport, RI, Naval War College, Discussion with OPNAV N3/N5 Staff, 17–18 June 2014.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. OPNAV N51 Navy’s Key Strategic Issues List, 11 March 2014.

5. Naval Warfare College, “Fast Facts,” . Naval Postgraduate School, “General Catalog,” .

6. James Holmes, “Does America Have Naval Strategists Anymore?” The Diplomat , , 12 January 2014.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. ADM Greenert remarks.

10. Discussion with Marine Corps Fellow at Center for a New American Security, Spring 2014.

11. ADM Greenert remarks.

12. ADM Jonathan Greenert, Keynote Address, “American Military Strategy in a Time of Declining Budgets,” American Enterprise Institute, , 5 September 2013.

Captain Hooper is the Signals Intelligence Division Chief at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, while Commander Pham is the Southeast Asia Division Chief at the Joint Intelligence Operations Center–Pacific (Pacific Command). Both are former Federal Executive Fellows.


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