'You Have to Be a Good Thinker'

An Interview with Admiral James A. Winnefeld Jr., U.S. Navy

After that, I got to know what it’s like at the highest levels of government, participating in that process as a member. I walk out of this with a deep sense of satisfaction.

Proceedings: How did you find your way into aviation? Were you dead-set on joining the Navy?

Winnefeld: I grew up in a Navy family and so obviously I had deep respect for my father and his service. He was an aviator, and that interested me. I wasn’t totally sure I wanted to be in the Navy, so that’s why I didn’t go to the Naval Academy (where I had been accepted). And I didn’t want to take a slot away from a kid who wanted it more than anything in the world. I sort of picked a middle path, and that was going NROTC.

I chose that route while I was going to high school in northern Virginia, and we then moved to Virginia Beach, where my dad had a job. I went out to Naval Air Station Oceana and watched people flying F-14s. I said, “That looks like it might be a lot of fun.” I feel blessed, because I knew from the moment I started college and was in an ROTC scholarship situation that I wanted to fly F-14s. It really focused me. I’ll always look at flying planes off of an aircraft carrier as one of the most amazing things. I’ve been through several situations in my life when it was made clear to me that I was capable of more than what I thought if I just applied myself and had good instruction. Flying off an aircraft carrier is one of them. Making it through nuclear-power school is another.

Proceedings: What about ROTC versus the Naval Academy? Did you encounter tension between the two?

Winnefeld: In the fighter-aviation community, I didn’t really feel that at all. I think it’s even less of a factor now than it was before. That said, even as an ROTC graduate I’m one of the more passionate advocates for having a Naval Academy and the other services academies as well. There, people can get an extremely good education, one of the best in the country, play intercollegiate athletics, have some discipline in their lives, and be around people like them.

The academies allow us to draw individuals into the service with a quality center of gravity that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to draw in if we were exclusively an ROTC or OCS group. I think it’s a pretty good balance right now.

Proceedings: When you were on your first tour as an F-14 pilot, what was the situation like? Was it a Cold War showdown?

Winnefeld: It was at a time when the Cold War was probably at its height, but it was also just after the Iranian hostage crisis. As we would transit on the West Coast, from San Diego west, the Russians would come out and look at us. I remember flying on the wing of a Russian Bear bomber the day after the KAL-007 airliner was shot down. There were a few interesting gestures between the pilots.

I also remember orbiting for hours at a time off of Chabahar, Iran, in the event that Iranians might want to take a look at us. Mostly for me, though, it was about learning what this business is all about. For example, how do you land on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the night when there’s no airfield around to divert? That was the challenge and the joy at the same time of learning this exciting profession and trying to get good at it.

Proceedings: You started writing as a midshipman. As far as thinking beyond your particular world, how did you get into those larger ideas and start pursuing more than the minimum requirement?

Winnefeld: The transition you’re talking about was pretty stark. I went from a junior-officer tour to one as an instructor at Top Gun and a department-head tour all in the comfortable community of Miramar, California, flying fighters and having a blast. From there, I went to the Joint Staff, where six months later I was briefing General Colin Powell on what happened when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. That’s a big step. A lot of other people have done that successfully. I didn’t consider myself particularly remarkable at the time.

One of the things I’ve consistently told junior officers and my own sons is to spend an extra hour a day, when all of the others around you are going to the gym, goofing off, or hanging around in the ready room. That’s all it takes in teaching yourself something about your profession, whether it’s actually about your airplane or your ship or your submarine, or whether it’s reading a book. Just pick one about foreign affairs. The rich start to get richer. You’ll start to see that you are able to interpret things in a different way than the people around you. If that fire gets lit in you and you start to become curious about the world, and you start networking outside your circle, then it just multiplies and snowballs.

Proceedings: How important is writing and trying to reach other people?

Winnefeld: Writing was important partly because to be a good writer, you have to be a good thinker. There is something about the discipline of trying to write well that’s hard work. It really clarifies your thinking and organizes your thought process. For me to write some of those articles when I was younger, it was as much about teaching myself to think and write as it was about what I was writing about. In those early days, I was writing about what I was doing at the time. It wasn’t particularly insightful about the rest of the world. I started to get a little bit into that later on.

Originally, it was about me caring about my own business and wanting to make my own business better, things I picked up in fighter aviation—the Outer Air Battle article, for example [see “Winning the Outer Air Battle, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 115, no. 8 (August 1989)]. What we were doing at the time violated almost every possible principle of warfare, but we continued to do it. It led me to coin one of my favorite personal sayings: “Incredibly bright adults will work incredibly long hours perfecting fundamentally flawed concepts.” That’s exactly what we were doing at the time. To break us out of that kind of behavior was one of the things I was trying to get done with some of the writing.

Proceedings: How important are those ideas now, in times of constrained budgets?

Winnefeld: We’re trying to balance ends, ways, means, and our security environment. When one of those variables is disturbed and gets kicked out of balance, the others have to compensate in some way to restore the balance. Right now, and even though this nation has been threatened in worse ways in previous times, we are in the most complex security environment I’ve ever seen. That is not getting any better. Part of the equilibrium is disturbed. Our means are decreasing. We have less money. We have less predictability. Congress is telling us “no” to reforms we need to make.

The only two things left are ways and ends. Nobody politically wants to mess with the ends, right? We’re still going to have all of our aspirations. Ways are something we really need to turn our attention to. That’s the exciting and fun part of this business. One of the things that keep me awake at night is whether this institution can be as creative as it needs to be or whether we are going to cling to the old ways of doing business. We’ve got to get more creative about how we operate in the world, how we think about warfighting. If we’re not willing to do that, we’ll be out of balance.

Proceedings: Naturally, the Naval Institute thinks it’s important to have conversations inside the military. In the Navy and Marine Corps, it has been largely at the flag/general level. It seems that when you get three or four steps down the organizational chart, there’s a resistance to share ideas about new approaches.

Winnefeld: I don’t know whether young authors are going to step forward courageously with new and bold ideas because their senior officers tell them to do it. It’s nice for junior authors to have a sense that they won’t be threatened by offering a controversial idea, so that’s important. There has to be a core of people out there willing to think, read, speak, write—to be creative and take risk. A few times in a generation you find someone who does that, people like a Jim Stavridis or a Niel Golightly, who really stepped forward and said, “Something’s wrong. We have to fix it.”

I don’t want to discount any of the articles out there now. Very creative people are working hard to write well, but most of it is incremental. We need to encourage the real visionaries to step forward.

Proceedings: How do you facilitate that?

Winnefeld: That’s a good question. I think tailored essay contests might be an answer. There’s the Naval Institute’s General Prize contest every year. That contest is really a big-picture thing. If you asked a focused question like, “Is our approach in the Western Pacific the right way to address this problem?” you’d get a pretty good discourse. If people are rewarded for that, not so much with money, but being the Prize Essay winner, that might motivate them. But it’s a challenge.

Proceedings: How does nuclear school work with surface warfare officers?

Winnefeld: Three types of people go to nuclear-power school and end up in the fleet. One is a junior submariner: He graduates from a commissioning source as an ensign, goes straight into nuke-power school, and ends up on a submarine. Then there are the surface warfare nukes, the people who obviously run nuclear-power plants on aircraft carriers. They generally do at least one surface junior-officer tour before they go to nuke school. Then there are the poor commanders who finish their aviation-squadron command tour and go to nuke school around 15 years after they get out of college.

It’s a real challenge to go in when you haven’t been immersed in a curriculum for quite some time and go through a very challenging technical course. I recall taking off from noon on Saturday to noon on Sunday, just to get away for 24 hours. My wife would pick me up at school on Saturday morning and drop me off at school at noon on Sunday, and I’d study the rest of the afternoon. It was hard, but it was an incredibly rewarding program for two reasons. One was that it was fascinating to learn how a nuclear plant works. Another was to drink in the culture, which gets a bad name, as in: “They eat their young.” It’s really a culture of operational excellence that tries to squeeze human error out of operating a very complex piece of machinery. The real benefit was having the extraordinary honor and joy of commanding an aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise [CVN-65] for an unbelievable two-year ride.

Proceedings: The most memorable component of that tour in the minds of many U.S. citizens was that you were operating just after 9/11 and moving forward. What do you recall about it?

Winnefeld: It was a wonderful deployment with a wonderful crew on a wonderful legacy ship that I saw when I was probably five years old. Now, I was the commander of that ship. One of the things that sticks out in my mind are that the crew was already a great one, but the way it came together after 9/11 just upped the game even higher. We did some extraordinary things, like launching and recovering airplanes while we were alongside an oiler refueling and vert-repping [vertically replenishing] ammunition all at the same time.

Proceedings: You have now been at the intersection of a Venn diagram for requirements, acquisitions, and policy. How do you approach that at such an interesting time?

Winnefeld: The Venn diagram to me is three portfolios. One is investment, and that is really requirements, acquisition, and budgeting. Then, there’s the strategy and policy portfolio, which is everything from writing the Defense Strategic Guidance, or QDR [Quadrennial Defense Review], to the frequent meetings at the White House that I end up attending to participate in the interagency process. The third portfolio is people. There’s a good side of that, which is grooming those who are going to take the ranks and the seriously senior joint jobs. Then, there are the more difficult pieces that we’re determined to get right: combating sexual assault being one and getting the force in the place where it needs to be. Those three portfolios, that’s how I sort of think of the job.

Proceedings: From your vantage point, how do things need to change regarding the way acquisition works?

Winnefeld: First of all, the technology margin is narrowing, either because people have watched us or they have their own development programs or they’ve just outright stolen what we’re doing. We’ve always had two advantages. One was technological, and the other was how we “operate our stuff.” The latter was masked, because nobody had the technological advantages we had.

As that margin closes, the way we operate our stuff is going to become more significant as an advantage. Even that will ultimately get whittled away. It’s not to be ignored. If, for example, you gave an adversary the same stuff we have, I’d still pick us, just because we’re so experienced and have the best-trained and smartest young men and women in the world. But we’re going to have to move beyond the technology we have now in order to try to stay ahead. The question is: “Is it an incremental movement or a leap-ahead movement?”

Normally, when you find you’ve been beaten, you try to find some disruptive technological leap. We don’t feel like we’re beaten, but we are definitely looking for the next technological offset. You’ve heard that terminology used by the then-Deputy Secretary of Defense [Ashton Carter]. It’s probably not going to be a single technology; it’s going to be a combination. It’ll be what we call small, smart things. It’s getting hard for an adversary, and even for ourselves, to handle a lot of little things coming at once. The offense has the advantage here, and we need to capitalize on that. At the same time, we try to negate some of the things the adversary is doing in the world of small, smart things or small, dumb things. There’s that sort of technological tit-for-tat we are going to be working on.

Then, separately, do we need to buy things faster? The MRAP [mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle] is an example of something that was easy, crude, and not high-tech, but we needed it very fast. I give now-Secretary Carter huge credit. The MRAP was a remarkable effort, not only to buy them for our troops, but also for our coalition partners. Building something better, whether it’s an airplane or a ship or a missile, is not easy.

A lot of the horror stories you hear are the outcomes of older processes. I think [Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics] Frank Kendall’s Better Buying Power 3.0 is going to help us in that regard. But we should not be satisfied. We need to find better ways to leverage technology and nontraditional defense-industry partners. In some technology applications, you can move software much faster than big platforms, which are hard to design and build. Where we’re going to get a lot of leverage is payload versus platforms. We have some pretty good platforms out there. Look at B-52s and aircraft carriers. They’re still good machines. It’s what they carry that matters. If we can be incredibly agile with the payloads we carry, then I think we’ll be in a good place.

Proceedings: What would you like to see added or changed to the acquisition process?

Winnefeld: A big discussion is going on between the acquisition community and the services over where the authority should lie in that discipline. I’d like to see the services have a little more authority, but I also recognize the advantages of having a professional acquisition force to make sure due diligence is applied so that we don’t have any acquisition catastrophes. I do sympathize with the service point of view, wanting to be able to drive a little faster with the decisions that are made. I think it’s a healthy tension we’re seeing right now.

Proceedings: How did you find the transition from all-Navy all the time to the joint world, which became more important moving into 2001 and 2002?

Winnefeld: What really helped me on that journey was the joint tour I did as a lieutenant commander in 1990 and then riffing off that after a year and half to being General Powell’s aide for a year, which was a hugely informative learning experience. I got that dose of jointness early on in my career, and I carried it through ever since. It wasn’t a difficult transition at all from being the 6th Fleet commander and also the Joint Command Lisbon commander, which is a joint coalition type thing, into being the Director of Strategic Plans and Policy of the J5 here, then being a combatant commander, and then coming into this job.

We’ve gone from de-confliction many years ago between the services to integration where we actually work together. Now, we’ve got interdependence. In the early days of Afghanistan operations, you had an Air Force JTAC [joint terminal attack controller] on horseback guiding Navy airplanes who were doing close-air support for Army units on the ground. How much more joint can you get? One singular advantage we have over any force in the world is our ability to work together on the battlefield.

I would add to that what the special-operations force taught us during the most recent conflicts, which is another advantage we have over anybody else in the world—our ability to integrate intelligence and operations. This sounds so simple, but it’s not a natural act. These are two completely separate entities, operators and intelligence people, and very rarely would they talk to each other. Now, we’re deeply integrating those two in a mutually reinforcing process.

Proceedings: You entered your current position a bit ahead of sequestration and the Budget Control Act of 2011. Given that this has dominated your entire tenure, how destructive was it? Was it something you were able to work through? Is it okay?

Winnefeld: I was confirmed for this job the same day the Budget Control Act was passed by Congress and enacted by the President. I hit the high-water mark. I’ve lived a sort of duality while I’ve been in this job. One is trying to do the best we can to articulate the real effects of budget cuts and sequestration, particularly how that has harmed our ability to protect our national-security interests. It was also an effort to try to mitigate it and get some relief from it.

At the same time, the other is trying to use it as a forcing function for us to become better as a joint force. Never waste a crisis. How can we win this fight in a more sensible way, while at the same time presenting to the world what the very real problems are? I think one of our challenges in messaging the impact of sequester is that we talk about it in “eaches.” It means this many fighter planes are grounded, and this many ships aren’t going to get under way. But we haven’t done a good job of articulating how it impacts our real national-security interests writ large. I say readiness has no constituency. We buy capability and technology. We buy capacity, which is force structure.

We buy readiness for that force structure. But that’s what always falls off the plate first. For Congress it’s because—and I’m being a little facetious here—they don’t care if the F-15 squadron in their district is flying or not, they just want it to be in their district. For the services, when it comes time to figure out what force structure you’re going to divest in order to keep the rest of it ready, we talk a good game. We’ll be smaller and readier. When it actually comes to jumping off that cliff and divesting the force structure, we have a really hard time doing it, and we tend to unwillingly accept less readiness rather than reducing force structure. We just have to make sure we get that balance right.

Proceedings: Any parting thoughts?

Winnefeld: I worry that the confluence of things like gerrymandering, 24-hour news media that people listen to selectively, the Internet, and the ability for information to propagate so quickly through social media has put us in a place where we are just fractured politically as a country. It’s going to be harder and harder for us to have a sensible conversation about how we protect the nation. The other thing I worry about is whether we are going to be innovative enough as a joint force in the face of vested interests in old ways of doing business or members of Congress who don’t want us to change the program. Those are the things that worry me.

What does let me sleep at night is that we’ve got the absolute best, most amazing generation of young men and women in the military that I’ve ever seen—the millennials. People ask me, “Aren’t they hard to lead?” I say, “No, they’re perfect for us.” They want to serve. They want to do something bigger than themselves. They’re incredibly technically adept. This amazing group of young people gets me excited to think about them ultimately taking over this business as they move forward in the ranks. I think we’re going to be in pretty good shape, but we’ve got a few challenges we need to overcome. It’s an exciting time to be a young person in this business, cracking those problems. I wish I had a chance to do it over again.



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